Universal Maritime Service's aggressive pricing has shaken up the port's stefedoring industry.


November 25, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

A year ago Longshoreman Fred Frampton used to bring his 4-year-old son along most mornings when he reported for work at the union hiring hall because he knew his chances of landing a job were just about nil.

Mr. Frampton's son doesn't get to tag along very much these days, because his father is working pretty steadily on the docks.

"It feels good to be working," Mr. Frampton said recently as he broke for lunch after a morning of loading steel pipes on a ship.

Mr. Frampton's fortunes began to change in April when he and the 16 other members of his crew went to work for Universal Maritime Service Corp., the newest stevedoring company in the port.

Since Universal, based in Jersey City, N.J., began operating in Baltimore a little more than a year ago, its business has grown dramatically. A sister company of Maersk Line, Universal started out handling the cargo carried by Maersk ships, but Universal has doubled its business by landing a succession of new accounts.

Stevedoring companies load and unload ships, manage dockside storage areas and document the movement of cargo as it arrives at the docks or is released at the pier for delivery to inland points.

Universal's success comes as many other port businesses struggle because of the general decline of the port, compounded by the recession. "Anyone who opens a business like this doesn't expect to make a profit in the first year," said Anthony A. Chiarello, the Universal assistant vice president in charge of the Baltimore operation. "We were all pleasantly surprised."

And the entire port is benefiting from Universal's results.

Universal's profit potential was a key to Maersk's recent decision to sign a contract that will keep the Danish company's ships coming to Baltimore for 10 years. Because Maersk is the most important container line in the port, that contract with the Maryland Port Administration will stabilize a big part of the port's business. And it represents a vote of confidence in the long-term future of Baltimore.

Steamship lines and shippers say they are attracted to Universal by its aggressive pricing and customized service. The result has been a much more competitive atmosphere among stevedoring companies. Rates have dropped significantly, thereby lowering the cost of moving cargo across the state's piers, according to Michael Angelos, deputy director of the Maryland Port Administration.

"There's no question it has lowered the cost of doing business in the port. Wherever there's good competition, that's the inevitable byproduct," Mr. Angelos said. He added, "They're part of the optimism we all feel."

Not everyone is happy about what Universal has accomplished under Mr. Chiarello. Other stevedoring companies are shaking their head over their diminishing profit margins, and have nicknamed Mr. Chiarello "low-ball Tony."

You could say that Mr. Chiarello began his preparation for his current job on the day he was born 35 years ago into a family that operated a stevedoring company in Brooklyn, N.Y. Mr. Chiarello's grandfather and his six brothers started the company at the turn of the century. And the next generation, Mr. Chiarello's father and three brothers, ran it -- American Stevedoring Co. -- while Tony was growing up.

Yet it was far from certain that Tony would follow in their footsteps. In fact, his father and uncles tried very hard to dissuade him from a career on the docks.

He recalls as a child visiting the docks with his father and encountering some longshoremen. "They asked if I would be the boss," Mr. Chiarello said. His father responded angrily. "He said he'd do everything in his power so that I would not be." About 1970, the family sold American Stevedoring. By one of life's little ironies the buyer was Universal, which at that time had not yet been purchased by Maersk.

In college, Mr. Chiarello decided that maybe his father and his uncles were right. "It was always stressed there are easier ways to make a living," Mr. Chiarello said. He graduated from Villanova University in 1977 with "the full intention of going to law school," but somehow it never turned out that way.

"Once you get this industry in your blood, it's difficult to get away from it," he said.

After a year of graduate school, he married and took a job in Baltimore with a friend's construction company as a mechanic and machine operator. At the end of another year he was ready to do something different. He considered law school but instead took a job as management trainee for International Terminal Operating Co. Inc. in New York. Within a year, he was back in Baltimore supervising ship-loading operations for ITO.

After seven years with ITO, Mr. Chiarello moved over to the Maryland Port Administration, where he rose to be deputy director under Brendan W. O'Malley, the MPA chief who stepped down last spring after two turbulent years in the post.

In 1989, Mr. Chiarello was one of the leading candidates for the job of port director but lost out to Mr. O'Malley.

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